Letters: Imago Dei — slavery and abortion
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration of Independence proffered a clear and unequivocable message; all men are created equal and in possession of basic rights bestowed by none other than the Creator of all things. While the framers of the Constitution did not deliver on the full promise of equal rights for all men in the governing document eventually drafted for the new nation, many if not most of them knew that the institution of slavery was an abomination which would need to be addressed at some point. It required our attention because, if all men are endowed by the creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all men must be free.
The earliest rumblings for the abolition of the institution of slavery came from the religious community, most notably the Quakers. Many historians believe that the revival of religious fervor during the Second Great Awakening (1795-1835) fueled the growth of abolitionist sentiment in the newly formed country. Scripture teaches that God created all men in his own image (the imago dei, or image of God). How could one man own another being created in God’s image and, as such, possessing infinite worth?
Even many Southern slaveowners were conflicted on the issue of slavery, so they looked for sections of Scripture which might justify the continuance of the institution. Their main objection to abolition, however, was that the slaves were their property, and property rights held great weight for even the author of the Declaration of Independence. While Thomas Jefferson enumerated three rights which all men possessed — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — he had undoubtedly borrowed the list from John Locke, an English philosopher, who had earlier listed life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness as the rights bestowed upon all men. To Locke, the term happiness referred to one’s ability to gather property and riches without the interference of government. While Jefferson never explained what he had meant by the pursuit of happiness, historians have long asserted that, to Jefferson, the word happiness was a euphemism for the pursuit of wealth.
So to slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike, the Declaration contained an incongruent pairing of an individual’s right to the holding and use of property and the right of each man to life and liberty, at least insofar as it applied to the institution of slavery, requiring a considerable degree of mental gymnastics by the Christian slaveholder to justify the ownership and exploitation of another human created in the image of God. On the one hand, they knew, or should have known, that their slaves held infinite worth in the eyes of the God they served; on the other hand, they believed they had a right to the unfettered use of their own property. In the end, slaveholders concluded that their own property rights held preeminence over any other rights that God may have bestowed upon their slaves.
In many ways, we face a similar conundrum in the national debate currently being staged over the issue of whether the right to privacy first enumerated in the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade does in fact exist in America’s founding documents. The Left assures us that it does, all subsumed under the phrase “my body, my choice.” The Right answers by pointing out that while it may be the mother’s body, that body contains a second human being which is endowed by its creator with the right to life. The arguments do not differ substantially from slaveholders who could have easily summarized their position with the phrase “my slave, my choice.” And like their slaveowner predecessors, the pro-choice forces are placed in the position of needing to argue that the unborn child is not truly a human being entitled to the same rights as the mother, in spite of a considerable body of science suggesting otherwise.
And there is one more similarity between the two national debates. On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina, beat a Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, with a cane on the floor of Congress after Sumner delivered an anti-slavery speech. The beating was so severe that Sumner was unable to resume his duties in the Senate for three years. An attempt to remove Brooks from the House of Representatives for his conduct failed, but Brooks resigned his seat until his constituents could express their views in a special election. Brooks was reelected to his seat in Congress in August 1856, and then again for a full term in the elections of November 1856. Passions on the issue ran so high for his slaveholding constituents that they decided that Brooks’ act of violence was not uncalled for.
Recently, a Leftist organization by the name of Ruth Sent Us listed the home addresses of the conservative Supreme Court justices, urging protestors to gather outside of their homes. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the potential for violence that doxing justices of the Supreme Court might produce, particularly after Antifa attacked a Republican rally in Portland, Oregon on April 30, 2022. While President Biden was quick to express his outrage over the draft of a Supreme Court decision which would overturn Roe v. Wade, he has refused to denounce either the leaking of the draft by someone within the Court or the doxing of the six conservative Supreme Court justices.
While I have not read Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion, I suspect it is well-argued and reaches the correct legal conclusion. Furthermore, I have no doubt that it reaches the correct moral position. Others will disagree with me, which is their right under a constitution which gives disparate groups the opportunity to contend for their values in the public square. But I do not believe anyone has the right to dox public officials, placing both their lives and that of their family at risk. We should have no room for a Preston Brooks in 21st century America.
— Victor Thayer